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A pile of pennies: Does a business have to accept coins?

A man in Vernal, Utah, has been charged with disorderly conduct after attempting to pay a disputed medical bill with 2,500 pennies, police say.

According to a story that appeared Friday in The Deseret News, Jason West went to Vernal’s Basin Clinic to dispute a $25 doctor’s bill. If the clinic remained unconvinced, West came with a Plan B, which involved almost 14 pounds of pennies.

Apparently, the argument didn’t go his way. According to Vernal police, West asked if the clinic accepted cash, and then dumped the 2,500 pennies on the counter, demanding that they count it. “The pennies were strewn about the counter and the floor,” said the assistant police chief.

It’s likely that the disorderly conduct charge had more to do with the dumping and strewing of the pennies and less to do with the currency itself. But the incident does raise a legitimate question: Are businesses required to take your pennies? A penny is, after all, legal tender. Doesn’t that mean they are good everywhere?

Here’s what the law says: The Coinage Act of 1965, specifically Section 31 U.S.C. 5103, states: “United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues. Foreign gold or silver coins are not legal tender for debts.”

All this means is that the Federal Reserve system must honor all U.S. currency. As the U.S. Treasury points out, there’s nothing in the law that says that private businesses have to accept it for all transactions. If a merchant wants to sell her products in exchange for gold bullion, nothing but dimes minted before 1946, Swedish fish, or Monopoly money, that’s her right under the law.

The absence of such a law is how bus lines can legally refuse to accept your dollar bills, gas station clerks can turn their noses up at your $100s, and panhandlers near the Monitor’s newsroom can yell at you after you drop a Sacagawea dollar coin in their cup, even though you were just trying to be nice.

In any case, West faces a fine of up to $140. If he’s convicted, he’s best advised to write a check.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jonas Benson on 06/09/2011 - 10:39 am.

    It seems odd that a story headlined, “Does a business have to accept coins?” would totally fail to answer that question. I have no doubt it’s true, as the writer suggests, that “If a merchant wants to sell her products in exchange for gold bullion, nothing but dimes minted before 1946, Swedish fish, or Monopoly money, that’s her right under the law.” But paying a debt that has been previously been incurred (such as the medical bill in dispute in this case) is a different matter. If I owe the writer ten bucks, does he have the right to demand that I pay him in Swedish fish, and refuse any other form of payment? Hardly — unless, perhaps, we agreed when the debt was incurred that only Swedish fish would accepted as repayment. Generally, unless a specific method of payment is specified in a contract, legal tender — including pennies — would be considered a valid means of discharging a debt. But in any case, if Eoin O’Carroll doesn’t know the answer to the question, he might have found someone who does. This is not “high-quality journalism.”

  2. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 06/09/2011 - 04:04 pm.

    #1 Good point. But you really should comment on the Christian Science Monitor website.

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